South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) officials do not anticipate any charges to be filed in the Tuesday incident many people are calling animal abuse involving a 12-foot alligator estimated to be over 70 years old being removed from a Hilton Head Island mini golf course.
On Tuesday afternoon, a crowd of more than 100 watched animal control agents from Critter Management — an agency that works with the town of Hilton Head under a permit — wrangle a 12-foot alligator and pose for photos with the ancient reptile at Legendary Golf before it was hauled off to be killed.
Videos and photos posted on social media — showing a Critter Management worker identified as Joey Maffo laying on top of the alligator and allowing bystanders to climb on top of the 12-foot animal and take pictures at Legendary Golf — sparked outrage in the Hilton Head community.
However, in SCDNR’s eyes, the Critter Management crew did not do anything illegal.
David Lucas, SCDNR spokesperson, said that while the actions taken by Critter Management were “irresponsible and dangerous,” they did not rise to the level of prosecution. Lucas said SCDNR wildlife officials looked at the incident and did not think it was necessary for law enforcement officials to investigate.
“We did not see anything that rose to the level of illegal charges,” Lucas said.”We don’t think it would be a productive thing to try to pursue charges.”
While it is illegal to molest or harass an alligator in South Carolina, Lucas said that it is legal for Critter Management workers to touch the alligator because they were given a permit, which was issued by the town of Hilton Head. While it wasn’t legal for bystanders to touch or sit on the alligator, SCDNR said they believed the people only did it because Critter Management employees encouraged it.
“I think a lot of those people thought it was OK, because the Critter Management people were saying it was OK,” Lucas said.
When asked why those who facilitated such an event — with a 70-to-100 year-old alligator hogtied, sat on, poked, and prodded — should not be held accountable, Lucas again pointed to South Carolina law.
“We didn’t see anything would rise to the level of state law,” he said. “We don’t regulate that business.”
The town of Hilton Head Island said in a statement they are “investigating the event.”
“We are deeply concerned about the egregious and unacceptable behavior that took place during the removal of an alligator from Legendary Golf on Tuesday evening and the disturbing videos circulating through the media,” Hilton Head Town Manager Steve Riley said in a statement.
According to SCDNR, the permit used to remove this alligator was issued by the Town of Hilton Head.
“We understand that the removal of this alligator was allegedly performed under a permit issued to the Town by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, which was subsequently transferred to a private entity, Critter Management,” Riley said in a statement. “We are investigating the circumstances surrounding these actions in conjunction with both state and local agencies.”
Riley called the actions that took place at Legendary Golf Tuesday as “outrageous.”
“We strongly condemn the manner in which this animal was treated and the outrageous actions the Critter Management staff allowed to occur. As a Town, we advocate for the protection of wildlife and the natural resources of the environment we live in,” Riley said. “It is unfortunate that people at the scene chose to make a spectacle of this situation and behave in a manner completely contrary to the core values and beliefs we, as Island residents, hold dear.”
Lucas also made it clear that SCDNR does not condone the actions taken by Critter Management Tuesday.
“We are not happy about it,” Lucas said. “We are very glad no one got hurt. Having people touching an alligator like that is incredibly dangerous.”
In contrast to the outcome of this event, SCDNR charged a Hilton Head Island Man who transported, treated and released a huge, tied-up alligator he found injured on a bike path on Hilton Head Island’s south end in 2018.
Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office was called to the scene around 5:45 p.m. Tuesday, according to Maj. Bob Bromage. Bromage said someone reported that a person was standing on top of an alligator, but by the time deputies arrived on the scene, the alligator was already loaded in the tow truck.
What happened to the alligator?
The alligator was ultimately euthanized Tuesday evening. David Lucas said that to his knowledge, SCDNR was not contacted about whether or not to euthanize the alligator — contrary to what many reported.
It is illegal to transport an alligator without a permit in South Carolina. Even with a permit, it is illegal to transport an alligator from one property to another (which is why officers have more leeway in gated communities).
Agents who kill the alligators are allowed to harvest the meat and the hide at a SCDHEC-approved facility and keep the money.
Many Hilton Head residents are disturbed not only by the fact that the alligator was pulled out of lagoon to be killed, but by the large alligator was treated as a spectacle in its last moments.
“Couldn’t help but feel sorry for that [alligator],” Hilton Head resident Michael Iaquinta said of the alligator on Facebook. “They were jumping on him and treating him like an amusement ride. Spend 75 years on top of the food chain and this is how you go out….”
Iaquinta called the behavior “disgusting.”
“If anyone who had a heart saw the look in that alligator’s eyes, you could just see the sadness and pain,” Iaquinta said.
Legendary Golf owner Lorraine Berry said on Facebook that Critter Management was “forced” to kill the alligator under the direction of SCDNR.
However, SCDNR Alligator Biologist Morgan Hart told FITSNews that SCDNR representatives told the person who made the complaint about what would happen to the alligator. Hart sent the following statement:
“SCDNR staff explained to the caller how the nuisance alligator program worked and advised them that the alligator could not be relocated off the property and would be euthanized if they chose to have it removed. At that time, the caller from Legendary Golf did not request a free nuisance tag and permit be issued for this alligator,” Hart said in a statement.
“A response, independent of SCDNR, was initiated by Legendary Golf and Critter Management. The tag and permit used for the removal of this alligator was not explicitly issued by SCDNR for this animal, but for any alligator deemed a nuisance on various properties located within the Town of Hilton Head. The town of Hilton Head has been issued a Nuisance Alligator Permit and tags to use at their discretion within the town limits. One of those tags was utilized to legally remove and euthanize this alligator.” SCDNR said in a statement.
19-year-old Joey Maffo of Critter Management told WJCL and the Island Packet early Thursday that he took responsibility for the event that sparked so much outrage in the community.
“I never really meant to harass the gator or anything,” he told WJCL. “All I wanted was to give the people an understanding of how big and powerful these animals really are and if you go into their territory you’re most likely going to get hurt.”
Joey Maffo — grandson of Joe Maffo who owns Critter Management — told WJCL he had received death threats after videos surfaced on social media.
A tip was submitted to town leaders on Thursday, asking them to further investigate the owners of Legendary Golf and their alleged role in the incident.
The tipster asked Hilton Head officials to review the WJCL video posted yesterday, which shows a man “who looks and sounds like” Legendary Golf owner Ed Berry in the center of the chaos Tuesday.
“..it appears that he also was facilitating the riding of the alligator. In fact, you can hear a voice say ‘only at Legendary Golf,'” the tip submitted to Hilton Head officials said.
“If the property owner who called Critter Management — essentially the client in this case — was also a driver of this poor behavior, I believe they too need to be held accountable,” the tipster said.
WANNA SOUND OFF?
Got something you’d like to say in response to one of our articles? Or an issue you’d like to proactively address? We have an open microphone policy here at FITSNews! Submit your letter to the editor (or guest column) via email HERE. Got a tip for a story? CLICK HERE. Got a technical question or a glitch to report? CLICK HERE.